Cutting contest 

West Side Post-Fire Project draws ire

A boxy helicopter deftly lifts a bundle of three logs from a hillside in the Flathead National Forest as a choker setter runs like hell to get out of the way. In about 35 seconds, the logs are set down next to a log deck and the helicopter turns toward the hill for another lap.

The helicopter slings mostly Douglas fir and spruce logs charred in the Doris fire, part of 31,600 acres burned along the eastern slope of the Swan range after a series of lightning strikes in August 2003. The logging is part of the West Side Reservoir Post-Fire Project, a 38-million-board-feet salvage project linked with miles of road closures and removals, that stretches along the western shore of Hungry Horse Reservoir.

The Flathead National Forest’s decision to proceed with the West Side project, located in the Hungry Horse and Spotted Bear ranger districts, has inspired a rich diversity of appeals filed by a duo of Flathead-area conservation groups, a quartet of Missoula-area conservation groups, a Kalispell-based pro-industry/pro-road group and a lone citizen from Whitefish.

Just watching the helicopter pull logs off a timber sale under appeal is unusual. In general, an appeal of a Forest Service decision means that work on the ground would not begin until concerns brought up by stakeholders are addressed. However, an “emergency exemption” sought by Flathead supervisor Cathy Barbouletos—and granted by regional forester Gail Kimbell—has kept the helicopters flying.

Many of the appellants showed up for a March 1 field trip hosted by the Flathead National Forest to look at a couple of the salvage logging sites. Coincidently, the outing marked the 10th anniversary of “amendment 19”—a change in the Flathead forest plan that calls for closure and removal of old roads in order to create secure habitat for grizzly bears, and a focus of the spectrum of concerns about the West Side plan.

Keith Hammer, chairman of the Swan View Coalition, says his group appealed the West Side project, along with Friends of the Wild Swan, largely because the Flathead isn’t fulfilling the road closure obligations set forth in amendment 19. He argues that the Forest Service has been methodically backing off its obligation to close and remove roads on this and other Flathead salvage projects—the Moose fire salvage and Robert-Wedge Canyon projects in particular—where the Forest Service’s own road closure guidelines were not achieved.

Flathead National Forest officials readily admit that the sum of its road closures and removals is less than amendment 19 calls for, but point to a paragraph in the amendment that allows for exceptions based on “unanticipated or impractical” results. Closing the only road to a private in-holding could be one such example. The Flathead has also used the rule to avoid closing roads popular with the motorized-recreation crowd.

Four Missoula-area conservation groups, including The Ecology Center, National Forest Protection Alliance, Native Forest Network and Alliance for the Wild Rockies, also appealed the West Side project based on broad concerns about the planning process and the promotion of salvage logging as a primary post-fire objective.

Joe Krueger, environmental coordinator for the Flathead forest, said he expected appeals of the West Side project all along, but he is confident the Flathead’s plan will proceed.

“I’m really proud of these projects,” said Krueger, who is also clearly frustrated by “special interest” groups constantly telling him the Flathead National Forest is wrong about the decisions it makes.

Standing in front of 17 three-ring binders stuffed full of Forest Service analysis for the West Side project, Krueger explained the next step following the appeals: He and other Flathead forest staff will address the questions raised in the appeals, drawing on the mounds of data contained in the binders, and send it on to regional headquarters in Missoula. The regional office has 45 days to decide if the appeals have merit.

Next week should bring a decision from the Missoula office concerning a similar round of appeals over the Robert-Wedge Canyon projects.

Despite the wide range of issues brought up in the four West Side appeals, Hammer sees plenty of room for better relations between the public and the Forest Service, and he thinks better relations could result in better conditions in the forest, and a less contentious path for logs traveling to area mills.

“If we knew that this area would have grizzly bear security, even if it took five years—if we had a schedule and trust it would be followed—we could work well with the salvage logging,” he said.

Fred Hodgeboom, president of Montanans for Multiple Use, who signed the dotted line on one of the four appeals, looked up at a recently logged stand of trees and saw too many “sticks” left standing. He sees road decommissioning as a use of public funds to destroy infrastructure; he appealed the road-closure portion of the West Side project. While vocal and persistent, his group has never won an appeal.

Hammer has a much better record of getting the Forest Service to follow its rules. “In 20 or 30 lawsuits over the last 20 years, we’ve lost one,” he says.

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